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Kinawley freshwater pearls

So why bother looking for pearls if not for profit? "They are lovely objects and it was always a great day out in the countryside"

Freshwater Pearls

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Article by Brian Willis.

Jim Sloan of Omagh
Jim Sloan of Omagh
Jim Sloan

In the 1970's Omagh man Jim Sloan used to be a 'Sligger man'. That was the nickname the Kinawley locals gave to the folk who used to hunt for freshwater pearls in their nearby Cladagh river.


Introduced

He was first introduced to this fascinating hobby by his old fishing colleague Eddie Chesters, now sadly deceased, and together they would go off for the day to Kinawley in County Fermanagh to search for these illusive beautiful objects.

The freshwater pearl is grown inside a mussel and is probably the result of some foreign object, perhaps a grain of sand, getting inside the shell which the mussel then shifts to one end and covers with layers of pearl substance.

Jim Sloan (Lt.) and the late Eddie Chesters 1984 photo taken by Jackie Sloan
Jim Sloan (Lt.) and the late Eddie Chesters
1984 photo taken by Jackie Sloan
Tools of the trade

How did Jim and Eddie go about finding these pearls? "All you needed was a home-made wooden box about nine inches square, with a sheet of glass set into the bottom. (They are holding these boxes in this photograph.) You held this on the surface of the river to look at the sandy floor and this simple device stopped the reflections on the ripples."

But how did they actually pick up the mussels? Jim told me that Eddie used a cleft stick but Jim preferred to just use his hands. That's one of the mussels on the end of Eddie's stick.


Jim's sister Kathleen's pearl ring
Jim's sister Kathleen's pearl ring
Graduation ring

Apparently there was very little money to be made from this hobby and Jim Sloan gave away most of the pearls he found to friends and relatives. One of the nicest pearls he discovered however, he set into a ring and gave to his sister Kathleen, on the occasion of her graduation.


Looking for the perfect one.

So why bother looking for pearls if not for profit? "They are lovely objects and it was always a great day out in the countryside" explained Jim "Sometimes the children would come with us too and we would picnic beside the river. Also it was addictive". I suggested a bit like the buzz the old gold prospectors got. He agreed and said that once started, it was hard to stop looking for that elusive "big " one.

Some of the freshwater pearls  collected by Jim Sloan
Some of the freshwater pearls
collected by Jim Sloan
The end of collecting

However, gradually the pickings began to dwindle, probably because of pollution. Then the death knell for the Sligger men came when fishing for freshwater pearls became illegal and the mussels declared an endangered species. (Caught pearl fishing in the rivers of Hungary or Sweden and you'll end up in gaol!)


The Strule

I asked Jim why did they bother to travel the 35 miles or so to Kinawley for pearls when the River Strule in Omagh was renowned for them? He explained there have not been mussels in the Strule for many years, again because of pollution, but also because of the extensive dredging of that river.

So another tradition and countryside pastime disappears into the history books, and 'Sligger men' are destined to live on only in web pages.

Banbridge crest showing mussels on shield.
Banbridge crest showing mussels on shield.
Banbridge footnote

Freshwater pearls also used to be gathered from the river Bann near Banbridge, County Down, and the Council crest of Banbridge District Council commemorates this fact with a depiction of mussels either side of the shuttle and spindle on the green section.


Special thanks to the staff of Omagh Library for their help with this article


YOUR RESPONSES

Stacey Smith - May '05
My father had a great interest and through this secured a £70,000 grant for improving the waters so that pearls (these seeds were planted on dolligans gills and the they would fall to the river bed) could be planted in the river bann the money was given to the angling clubs in banbridge and clonduff for the water ways in the areas from spelga right to river bann and beyond to cultivate these pearls.

Unfortunately my father died on 28th May 04, aged just 51 and right up until he died he was working tirelessly to secure long term funding from local government so that the work could continue and that the river would once again be inhabited by these pearls, and generally be enhanced. He fought for his life for 9 months, but just 2 weeks prior to his death the funding for the ongoing work was secured. The project is called 'The Desi Smyth Pearl Mussell Project.' One day prior to his death he received the pearl of greatest price.

Desi Smyth
Stacey's father Desi working at a bridge

 

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